Tuesday, 18 August 2009

'The city's uncounted population'

London is a peculiarly ancient city. There are cities with older buildings (Athens, for instance) or housing an older institution (Rome and the papacy). I can't think of any, though, that are home to so many long-established but continuing institutions, some still located on the same sites or, even, still housed in their foundational buildings. Parliament, Crown, Inns of Court, the City with its Mayor and Guilds, the produce markets, even the London crowds and their gathering places.

Much of this has arisen outside the state - created to meet the needs of self-organising citizens - and so has underwritten London's organic, spontaneous quality, its notable anarchies, organised or otherwise.

I'm not sure the imagination is capable of encompassing the richness and depth of the sedimentary layers that support today's city. Reading The Noble Revolt whilst away, describing how the clash between the king and a cabal of nobles triggered civil war, I was struck by how some of the important precedents cited by the disaffected of the early 1640s dated from the parliamentary struggles of the 1380s, more than 250 years earlier (this period itself being more than 200 years after the Conquest). London and its institutions must have felt impressively ancient nearly five hundred years ago.

Despite occasional vandalism (the botched and whimsically ignorant attempt to abolish the office of Lord Chancellor in 2004 springs to mind), continuities persist. And not just in the names of offices and institutions: as Bunny Smedley has remarked, The Noble Revolt's story of elite politics - with its smears, personal hatreds and manipulation of popular emotions - has close parallels in today's politics of spin.

London almost features as a character (or characters) in its own right in The Noble Revolt. It does too in Hilary Mantel's fine novel Wolf Hall (another holiday book). It's a sympathetic study of Thomas Cromwell, conducted through some terrifically written dialogue and internal monologue. He's portrayed as fascinatingly adept and canny. A self-made man: learned, cosmopolitan, practical, resourceful. I found this written portrait particularly compelling having been transfixed by the beadily detailed one (above) by Holbein in the Frick; so psychologically absorbing, I struggled to tear myself away.

The novel could be read with benefit alongside Peter Ackroyd's biography of Thomas More, a contrasting companion piece (mirrored at the Frick where Holbein's portrait of Cromwell shares a room with his one of More (below): the air fairly crackles). But despite disclosing very different sympathies with these intriguingly matched adversaries, both books contain - or rather, are contained within - marvelous evocations of the city.

Mantel's story rotates around the royal court - microcosmically representative - where 'man is wolf unto man'. The predatory and bestial is never far away and England's founding mythologies play out in the background. But this isn't an exercise in psychogeography. The book is rooted very much in quotidian reality and human preoccupations: power, love, ambition, greed, amusement.

Nevertheless, a book about ancient London wouldn't be complete without a diversion through the city's strange bestiaries. Anne Boleyn, on her processional journey from Greenwich to her Westminster coronation, travelled the first part via the arterial Thames (the river is brilliantly described throughout). The party then proceeded on land:
Fenchurch Street, Leadenhall, Cheap, Paul's Churchyard, Fleet, Temple Bar, Westminster Hall. So many fountains flowing with wine that it's hard to find one flowing with water. And looking down on them, the other Londoners, those monsters who live in the air, the city's uncounted population of stone men and women and beasts, and things that are neither human nor beasts, fanged rabbits and flying hares, four-legged birds and pinioned snakes, imps with bulging eyes and ducks' bills, men who are wreathed in leaves or have the heads of goats or rams; creatures with knotted coils and leather wings, with hairy ears and cloven feet, horned and roaring, leathered and scaled, some laughing, some singing, some pulling back their lips to show their teeth; lions and friars, donkeys and geese, devils with children crammed in their maws, all chewed up except for their helpless paddling feet; limestone or leaden, metalled or marbled, shrieking and sniggering above the populace, hooting and gurning and dry-heaving from buttresses, walls and roofs.
Without doubt, the city's populations - past and present - have been wonderfully well-served by these books.

[Thanks to I'vebeenreadinglately for starting off this train of thought].


worm said...

excellent stuff. This restoration period of london is one that I know very little about in political terms. In fact my only knowledge at all of the period comes from Pepys, but I do like anything remotely Breugellian, so perhaps I should begin to delve more

Gaw said...

Weirdly, I'm just thinking of a post featuring Pepys. I don't know whether you've come across Claire Tomalin's biography - it's brilliant, one of the best I've read. It's certainly got some grotesque and uproarious moments, which I'm guessing you would like...

BTW thanks for the Don Simpson reco. Talk about grotesque and uproarious!

worm said...

haha yes the don simpson book has some gems in it - I'm particularly fond of the story where he crashes his brand new ferrari into a lamppost at 6am, and then walks off leaving it in the street, before phoning his luckless assistant to tell them that they'd better leave LA quickly, as he has given their name to the police as the suspect! total asshole!

worm said...

ps. just ordered the tomalin book!